Sunday, August 18, 2013

CALL GIRL - MIFF 2013




Within the opening minute of “Call Girl”, I thought straight away that visually the film looked almost identical to “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”.  As I was having this thought, the name of the film’s cinematographer popped up on screen: Hoyte Van Hoytema, who sure enough photographed the earlier film.  After doing some more research, I found out that Hoytema was not the only crew member from “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”.  Mikael Marcimain, the director of “Call Girl”, himself actually served as the second unit director on that film.  I mention all of this because the biggest asset “Call Girl” has is its gorgeous and exact period detail; a trait that it shares with “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy”.  One other thing that it shares is a total sense of paranoia that permeates the entire picture.

Set in 1970’s Sweden and actually based on a true story, “Call Girl” is about a young fourteen year old girl named Iris, who after being sent to a juvenile detention centre (due to repeated misbehaving) is lured into the world of prostitution by Madame Dagmar Glans.  The initial monetary gain is enough for Iris and Sonja (her cousin who has also been caught in the web of prostitution) to not think twice about the consequences of their actions, but as they, and in particular Iris, become popular amongst Dagmar’s clientele, she starts introducing them to increasingly important personnel including high ranking officials and politicians.  Unknown that they are being watched by a small band of police, Iris and the rest of Dagmar’s girls end up getting mixed up in a massive political scandal (and subsequent attempted cover-up) as those involved do anything and everything at their disposal to ensure that their names are not exposed or that their association with Dagmar becomes public.  What makes the whole thing more intense is the fact that this all takes place days before a national election thus raising the stakes enormously as careers and reputations are threatened to be destroyed forever.

While “Call Girl” is quite a long film with a running time of 140 minutes, I can honestly say that I was riveted the entire time.  Going into the film I knew little about the story of “Call Girl” and assumed that it was going to be a story about underage prostitution, but when it became a high stakes political thriller, I was more than impressed.  As I have mentioned, the film’s biggest asset is its look and perfect recreation of the 1970’s, from the cars, costumes and buildings.  The world just looked different forty years ago; everything felt lived in and it was full of gritty textures, unlike today’s over sterilized world made of shiny plastic and rounded edges.  Everything feels disposable today, whereas back in the seventies, things were made to last.  The art department has done a stellar job here of bringing that world to life.

The cinematography has an appropriately gritty look to it all; often images are soft or hazy from the smoke filled rooms our characters regularly inhabit.  The colour palette consists mainly of grays and browns with regular splashes of light pastel colours with nothing overly flashy to make it stand out.  The look is quite subdued and very deliberate.  What impressed me most about the film was Marcimain and Hoytema’s shot selections and compositions.  Often images are taken from outside the place where the action occurs, be it through a window, a hallway or an open door.  It gives the viewer the sense that we are witness to something that we should not be privy to and thus we become voyeurs to private moments, which is a theme that the film explores in a big way.  There is always someone watching what is going on at all times and this constant surveillance helps enormously in creating this world of paranoia. 

“Call Girl” is a film that is littered with a large number of characters and director Marcimain does an excellent job of defining and differentiating them all that I was never confused about the identity of anyone.  This is a herculean task because some of these characters appear on screen very briefly only to have their importance revealed much later in the film, but due to the expert way the film has been laid out and the story told, it is very easy to remember everyone.

From an acting standpoint, “Call Girl” is brilliantly performed by everyone involved although there is one standout that needs to be mentioned.  Pernilla August is absolutely stunning as Dagmar Glans and she totally steals every scene she is in.  She is such a complex character and August nails every nuance of the woman.  Most times she is motherly towards her girls appearing to care about their comfort, but she can turn on a dime when her business is threatened and becomes serious and sometimes even violent when she is defied.  There is a small scene between Dagmar and her son where we get to see her worried for real (in a mothering sense), which is totally different from the way she treats the girls.  She seems much less assured when dealing with her own flesh and blood compared to the prostitutes who are in her employ where she feels in total control.  Dagmar is also very charismatic and there are a number of times we are witness to her working and owning a room, just from her presence and demeanor.  

Personally I found “Call Girl” to be exquisite in all departments of its making; I felt it was expertly put together and the electronic score by Mattias Barjed added so much to the film, feeling reminiscent to John Carpenter’s scores from his 1980’s output.  However as much as I loved the film I was flabbergasted to hear the day after while waiting in a queue for another film just how many people did not like “Call Girl”.  For me, all I saw was quality but “Call Girl” obviously has the ability to divide audiences.  The only places the film falls short for me are the two actresses who portrayed Iris and Sonja (Sofia Karemyr and Josefin Aspland respectively) weren’t quite convincing enough to be believable as fourteen year olds, and at times I felt that Marcimain focused too heavily on the nudity during the scenes of prostitution, but overall these are minor complaints for a film that I would say was close to my favourite at MIFF this year.


4 Stars.

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